UConn professor and journalist Amanda J. Crawford considers the misinformation that spread like wildfire after tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School to be "the first major conspiracy theory of the modern social media age."
Ten years after 26 young students and school staff were killed in the massacre, the impact of that day in 2012 continues to reverberate in America today.
On this solemn anniversary, Crawford writes about the aftermath of Sandy Hook misinformation in a new essay for The Conversation:
Conspiracy theories are powerful forces in the U.S. They have damaged public health amid a global pandemic, shaken faith in the democratic process and helped spark a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
These conspiracy theories are part of a dangerous misinformation crisis that has been building for years in the U.S.
While American politics has long had a paranoid streak, and belief in conspiracy theories is nothing new, outlandish conspiracy theories born on social media now regularly achieve mainstream acceptance and are echoed by people in power.
Recently, one of the most popular American conspiracy theorists faced consequences in court for his part in spreading viral lies. Right-wing radio host Alex Jones and his company, Infowars, were ordered by juries in Connecticut and Texas to pay nearly $1.5 billion in damages to relatives of victims killed in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School a decade ago. Jones had falsely claimed that the shooting was a hoax.
As a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut, I have studied the misinformation that surrounded the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012 – including Jones’ role in spreading it to his audience of millions. I consider it the first major conspiracy theory of the modern social media age, and I believe we can trace our current predicament to the tragedy’s aftermath.
Ten years ago, the Sandy Hook shooting demonstrated how fringe ideas could quickly become mainstream on social media and win support from various establishment figures – even when the conspiracy theory targeted grieving families of young students and school staff killed during the massacre.
Those who claimed the tragedy was a hoax showed up in Newtown and harassed people connected to the shooting. This provided an early example of how misinformation spread on social media could cause real-world harm.
Amanda J. Crawford is a veteran political reporter, literary journalist, and expert in journalism ethics, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and the First Amendment. Click on her icon now to arrange an interview with her today.